Nothing that gun-control advocates are pushing for in Congress would have prevented Monday's shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard. And unless this country bans all personal ownership of guns, another mass shooting will occur.
This is the greatest hurdle for the gun-control movement. They seek changes to the law that a majority of the public supports—expanded background checks, an assault weapons ban, and limits on high-capacity ammunition. But they are up against formidable opponents in the gun-rights groups. And the only time they get to talk about it is after a splashy, tragic incident that does not represent the bulk of gun deaths—suicides, street crimes, accidents.
"You have to base the push around more than the outrage on any one tragedy. It has to be based on our collective desire to make this be the country we all want it to be," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "In order to create the most meaningful change, we have to look at the gun violence that happens every day."
Preventing everyday gun violence is hard, and it's not going to happen overnight. Curbing gun violence from criminals would require serious attempts to understand how guns get into their hands in the first place. Criminals have only a few ways to get a gun, assuming they can't pass a background check—buying it at a gun show or online, buying it on the black market, or stealing it.
Stopping that is like a game of Whack-a-Mole. For each way that a criminal gets a gun, you need a different rule to stop it. Background checks at gun shows are an obvious way to get rid of one of a criminal's options for getting a gun. But that doesn't stop him or her from buying a gun privately from straw purchasers. There are other ways to prevent that kind of gun trafficking, but those laws inevitably will have loopholes or no one would be able to buy a gun at all.
Stopping gun trafficking is even harder if it has to happen state by state. A now-expired Virginia law that only allowed people to buy one gun per month dramatically reduced the number of Virginia-purchased guns recovered at crime scenes. That's because "crime guns" are often purchased illegally by someone who buys them in bulk from a legitimate dealer. But even when Virginia's law was in place (it expired in 2012), the number of "crime guns" from other states increased.
And then there are the mass shootings, which are even harder to prevent. "A deranged crazy person, largely in suicidal range, decides to take out as many people as possible—that's the most difficult of all," said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association.
To wit, the Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis had a history of violence, some brushes with the law, and a history of negligence with a gun. But the current background check laws couldn't stop him from buying a gun because he wasn't decreed by a court to be mentally incompetent and he wasn't a convicted felon. He even had a security clearance that gave him access to a military compound, courtesy of an employer that didn't know about his standoffs with the local police or his problems in the Navy Reserve.
Background checks have to actually detect problems or they're not going to work. "This was a guy with a history of violent behavior and recklessness with firearms," said Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "There is no other civilized society that would allow him legally to own a gun and carry it in public. …We have a regulatory system in this country that is riddled with loopholes and a joke."
Some call them loopholes. Some call them legitimate protections of gun owners' rights. Either way, the process of creating and using any rules to curb gun violence will take gun rights into account. That means compromise, and that means exceptions to the rules that could allow another violent incident to occur. It's inevitable.
Does that mean the gun-control advocates should give up? They certainly show no signs of it, although Gross thinks they should start talking about the issue more holistically. "We need to be having a conversation about guns like we have a conversation about everything else in society that presents risks and rewards -- automobiles, swimming pools," he said.
And even though the gun control advocates couldn't muster the support to pass a Senate bill that expanded background checks in April, that only added fuel to their fire.
"Sarah Brady, after the Senate vote, turned to me and seeing how upset I was—this was my first big policy fight—she said, 'Sometimes it takes a good defeat,'" Gross said.
Sarah Brady ought to know. As the wife of Reagan White House spokesman Jim Brady, who was shot in an assassination attempt 1981, she spent more than a decade trying to get the first handgun background check bill to pass. It took six votes in Congress over seven years.